January 22, 2001
by Samuel Cotton
(This article appeared in the February 1-February 7, 1995, issue of The
African Americans have contended for decades with a rage born of
remembrance--a resentment fomented by poignant images of black Africans
captured, bound, and sent into the horrors of slavery. Some have been driven
to travel to the continent of Africa, and stand on the shores of West Africa
to view the actual places where the degradation of a race began. At these
places, the grandchildren of ancient slaves--survivors of a
holocaust--wrestle with a terrible mixture of emotions. The passions
produced by the realization that the forts before them housed their African
ancestors in their last days of freedom before a long voyage delivered them
into the hands of cruel masters. The white hot anger that rises slowly in
African Americans as they recall these events and the epithets that dance in
the heads of these observers of the past, sometimes escapes their lips as
curses and bitter mutterings. Occasionally, African Americans simply
fulminate. These bitter expressions of resentment and grief have only been
cooled and soothed by a belief that African Americans hold. The comforting
assurance that the buying and selling of black African slaves ended in the
distant past. Such a belief is a myth.
It has become clear that the enslavement of black Africans did not stop
with the demise of the Atlantic Slave Trade. That on this very day and hour,
as you read this, black Africans are bought and sold in two North African
countries. In the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, black Africans continue
to be enslaved by their Arab-Berber masters. Although slavery was declared
abolished three times since Mauritania's independence in 1960, it persists.
Slaves are given as wedding gifts, traded for camels, guns or trucks, and
inherited. The children of slaves belong to the master and slaves who
displease their masters or attempt escapes are tortured in the most brutal
In Sudan, Africa's largest country, the Islamic Republic of the Sudan, as
a result of an Islamic-vs.-Christian civil war, black women and children
(mostly Christian) are captured in raids on their villages and sold as
chattel slaves, sometimes, according to the UN in "modern-day slave
The Mauritanian Embassy and the Sudanese Mission were contacted several
times for comment-they did not return the calls.
Mauritania-A Legacy of Slave Trading
The enslavement of black Africans has existed in Mauritania for many
centuries. It is a country that joins the descendants of Arabs and Berbers
from the North, known as beydanes [white men], and the black ethnic
communities living in the South. Blacks, mostly sedentary farmers,
consisting of the Tukulor, the Fulani, and the Wolof tribes were brought
north after being captured by raiding Arab/Berber tribes. This activity
predates and postdates the Atlantic slave trade. Simply put, the slave trade
that brought black Africans to these shores never stopped in Mauritania.
"More than 100,000 descendants of Africans conquered by Arabs during the
12th century are still thought to be living as old-fashioned chattel slaves
in Mauritania" says Newsweek after conducting a yearlong, four-continent
investigation of slavery.
Differing only slightly with this estimate, the U.S. State Department
estimates that 90,000 blacks still live as the property of Berbers, "and
that's a conservative estimate," said Dr. Jacobs, who puts the actual figure
closer to 300,000 when interviewed by The News Tribune. In addition,
Newsweek states that "Aside from the shantytowns and a strip of land along
the Senegal River, virtually all blacks are slaves, and they are more than
half the population."
"Black Africans in Mauritania were converted to Islam more than 100 years
ago," says Mohamed Athie, Executive Director of the American Anti-Slavery
Group, [and]. . ."the Koran forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims, but
in this country race outranks religious doctrine. . . Though they are
Muslims, these people are chattel: used for labor, sex and breeding."
Africa Watch reported that "Religion has been used by masters as an
important instrument to perpetuate slavery. Relying on the fact that Islam
recognizes the practice of slavery, they have misinterpreted it to justify
current practices. In truth, Islam only permits treating as slaves,
non-Islamic captives caught after holy wars, on condition that they are
released as soon as they convert to Islam. People living as slaves in
Mauritania long before the first abolition in 1905 were all Moslems, but
this did not lead to their emancipation. We received numerous complaints
about the extent of which qadis (judges in Islamic courts) continue to
exercise their judicial functions to protect the institution of slavery,
rather than to ensure its eradication."
Successive regimes outlawed slavery in 1905, at independence in 1960, and
most recently in 1980. These edicts were only lip service and window
dressing. The proof is that since independence all economic and political
power have remained firmly in the h ands of beydanes.
The Sudanese government never passed any laws providing punishment for
enslaving black Africans and they never bothered to tell many of the slaves
about emancipation. In 1980, the government sought to have its ruling
ratified by a body of religious jurist, the ulema. The jurists said that
slavery is not wrong on religious grounds, but that outlawing it would be
within the government's competence--provided that owners were compensated
for the manumission of slaves. Nobody has ever applied for compensation."
These black African slaves in Mauritania are subjected to mental and
emotional torments that have always been concomitant with slavery. "Routine
punishments for the slightest fault include beatings, denial of food and
prolonged exposure to the sun, with hands and feet tied together. "Serious"
infringement of the master's rule can mean prolonged tortures, documented in
a report by Africa Watch. These include 1. The "camel treatment," where a
human being is wrapped around the belly of a dehydrated camel and tied
there. The camel is then given water and drinks until its belly expands
enough to tear apart the slave. 2. The "insect treatment," where insects are
put in his ears. The ears are waxed shut. The arms and legs are bound. The
person goes insane from the bugs running around in his head. 3. The
"burning coals" where the victim is seated flat, with his legs spread out.
He is then buried in sand up to his waist, until he cannot move. Coals are
placed between his legs and are burnt slowly. After a while, the legs,
thighs and sex of the victim are burnt. There are other gruesome
tortures--none of which is fit to describe in a family newspaper" states
Africa Watch. Another report states that some slaves caught fleeing are
often castrated or branded like cattle.